Who Is Responsible for Policing a Metaverse?
By Betsy Burton
I recently read several interesting articles about dealing with harassment in a metaverse environment (Facebook/Meta Metaverse, Second Life, Microsoft Mesh Teams, NVIDIA Omniverse).
A metaverse is a digital immersive environment that supports a collection of virtual shared spaces that are specifically designed to deliver an immersive world where users often interact with and through an avatar. A metaverse could be a digital twin of a physical world place (e.g., a manufacturing floor, a museum, a park, etc.), or it could be a fantastical fictitious place.
The question is, what type of responsibility do metaverse service providers have with respect to providing a safe virtual environment for their users? And how does this issue become more complicated as enterprises conduct business operations in a metaverse environment?
What are the Issues?
The challenges of managing human behavior have long been an issue for police, parents, teachers, HR professionals, and team managers. This issue becomes even more complex in public venues (bars, restaurants, concert venues, museums, etc.). And now with the prospect of more users in a metaverse environment, issues of harassment, threats, abuse, theft, and, even, death, are becoming significantly more difficult.
Why is VR/AR Most Complex?
Harassment has been an issue in collaborative tools and social media for years. But in a metaverse environment, the use of a VR/AR headset has the potential of bringing harassers face-to-face with victims. Interactions are not behind the wall of a flat screen, but potentially all around you. The emotional and traumatic impact on users can be significantly higher.
According to a Forbes article, Facebook/Meta considered implementing a feature whereby avatars would fade out and disappear when they got too close to another user. The company decided to not do this in favor of a boundary setting that would set up a bubble around an avatar from specific other avatars. The problem with this is that the nefarious avatar needs to be identified, and by that time it is too late. In addition, users have reported getting trapped by other user avatars using a cluster of boundary bubbles.
What is the Exposure in a Public Metaverse?
I am not a legal expert or lawyer. But this metaverse policing issue is going to become an issue for metaverse service providers, partners, and enterprise customers. A ruling in the California Court of Appeals in the case of Katie Dix, a 19-year-old who died at a Live Nation concert found in favor of the Dix family.
“Although there is no duty to come to the aid of another, a duty to warn or protect may be found if the defendant has a special relationship with the potential victim that gives the victim a right to expect protection. If such a relationship exists, then the person with that relationship owes a duty to protect the other person from “foreseeable harm, or to come to the aid of another in the face of ongoing harm or medical emergency”.
If a metaverse promotes itself as a utopia where users communicate, collaborate, share ideas, and play, then, in my non-legal view, it is setting an expectation with users that they have some protection. Will users sue Meta, NVIDIA, etc. if they are abused and harassed in a metaverse?
One big issue is what is the legal domain? If one avatar is in Brazil, another avatar is in Boston and the Headquarters of the metaverse service provider is in California, what laws apply? What if the metaverse service provider is headquartered in China? What if the avatar accused of experiencing the harassment/assault is an AI-enabled bot?
What is the Exposure in an Enterprise Metaverse?
Another issue is the use of a metaverse for business enterprise usage (What Is The Future of Metaverse?). What if employees and partners are attending an event, and these issues come up? Could your business be liable because an employee is victimized while attending an event that is not policed in a metaverse?
What Can Be Done?
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas has promoted a set of guidelines for concert venues that could be applied to help inform and protect metaverse users.
- Promote an explicit anti-harassment policy
- Increase bystander intervention
- Promptly remove offenders / prosecute offenders
- Create a centralized place for help and reporting
- Train staff to identify and respond to nonconsensual behavior
- Increase surveillance
- Imbed individuals in the metaverse to provide monitoring and allow immediate reporting
The metaverses open a whole new can of worms for police, legal systems, social media service providers, enterprises, and parents. Based on the articles I have read thus far, there are a lot more questions regarding responsibility and culpability. Particularly when dealing with masked users of widely diverse ages, genders, and regional behavioral norms and legal frameworks.
For now, my only advice is that executives, managers, users, and parents beware. Know that metaverses are not well policed today and that the rules and governance of metaverses are not well defined. Understand that the potential emotional impact of experiencing harassment and abuse in VR/AR is significantly different from a flat-screen. Educate your employees, social network, and children. And, provide an easy way for them to report and share experiences.